David Crockett (1786-1836), American frontiersman and politician, became during his own lifetime a celebrity and folk hero, particularly to Americans living in the newly settled midwestern regions of the country.
Davy Crockett grew to manhood in a backwoods area. He experienced the crudeness and poverty of the frontier squatter and later used this knowledge in his political campaigns. A master storyteller, the semiliterate Crockett proved a formidable political campaigner, as well as the personification of the characters in the frontiersmen's "tall tales" of that day. Although he is known chiefly for his exploits as a hunter and soldier, Crockett's major contributions included political efforts to get free land for frontier settlers, relief for debtors, and an expanded state banking system for Tennessee.
Davy Crockett, the son of John and Rebecca Crockett, was born on Aug. 17, 1786, in Hawkings County, East Tennessee. John Crockett failed as a farmer, mill operator, and storekeeper. In fact, he remained in debt, as did Davy, all his life. Because of continuing poverty, Davy's father put him to work driving cattle to Virginia when he was 12 years old. Returning to Tennessee in the winter of 1798, Davy spent 5 days in school. After a fight there, he played hookey until his father found out and then, to escape punishment, ran away.
Crockett worked and traveled throughout Virginia and did not return home for nearly 3 years. Several years later he decided that his lack of education limited his marriage possibilities, and he arranged to work 6 months for a nearby Quaker teacher. In return Crockett received 4 days a week of instruction. He learned to read, to write a little, and to "cypher some in the first three rules of figures."
In 1806 Crockett married Mary Finely; the young couple began their life together on a rented farm with two cows, two calves, and a loan of $15. Frontier farming proved difficult and unrewarding to Crockett, who enjoyed hunting more than work. After five years he decided to move farther west. By 1813 he had located his family in Franklin Country, Tenn.
Life on the Frontier
Shortly afterward the so-called Creek War began. During the summer of 1813 a party of frontiersmen ambushed a band of Creek Indian warriors in southern Alabama. Settlers in the area gathered at a stockade called Ft. Mims. The Native Americans attacked on Aug. 30, 1813, found the garrison undefended, and killed over 500 people. Within 2 weeks frontier militia units gathered for revenge, and Crockett volunteered for 3 months' duty that year. In September and October he served as a scout. During the famous mutiny against Andrew Jackson in December, Crockett was on leave, and reports that he deserted the militia during the Creek War are unfounded. He served again from September 1814 to February 1815. During this campaign Crockett was a mounted scout and hunter; apparently his unit encountered little fighting.
In 1815 Mary Crockett died. Within a year Crockett remarried. While traveling with neighbors in Alabama to examine the newly opened Creek lands during 1816, he contracted malaria and was left along the road to die. But he recovered and returned to Tennessee, pale and sickly, much to the surprise of his family and neighbors who thought he was dead. He has been quoted as remarking about his reported death, "I know'd this was a whopper of a lie, as soon as I heard it."
Local and State Politics
In 1817 Crockett was a justice of the peace and the next year was serving also as a county court referee. In 1818 his neighbors elected him lieutenant colonel of the local militia regiment, and that same year he became one of the Lawrenceburg town commissioners. He held this position until 1821, when he resigned to campaign for a seat in the state legislature. During the campaign Crockett first displayed his shrewd ability to judge the needs of the frontiersmen. He realized that their isolation and need for recreation outweighed other desires. Therefore, he gave short speeches laced with stories, followed by a trip to the ever present liquor stand—a tactic well received by his audience, who elected him. Crockett appears to have been a quiet legislator, but his first-term actions demonstrate the areas of his future legislative interest. Having grown to manhood among the debt-ridden and often propertyless squatters, Crockett served as their spokesman. He proposed bills to reduce taxes, to settle land claim disputes, and in general to protect the economic interests of the western settlers.
When the legislative session ended in 1821, Davy went west again, this time to Gibson County, Tenn., where he built a cabin near the Obion River. Two years later he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature. This victory demonstrates his improved campaign techniques and his realization that antiaristocratic rhetoric was popular. Again he worked for debtor relief and equitable land laws.
During 1825 Crockett ran for Congress; he campaigned as an antitariff man, however, and the incumbent easily defeated him. Two years later Crockett won the election. Throughout his congressional terms he worked for the Tennessee Vacant Land Bill, which he introduced during his first term. This proposal would have offered free land to frontier settlers in return for the increase in value which they would bring about because of their improvements.
In 1829, although he opposed several of President Andrew Jackson's measures, Crockett's campaign for reelection as a Jacksonian was successful. But during his second term in Congress, Crockett grew increasingly hostile to Jackson. He opposed the President on the issues of Native American removal, land policy, and the Second National Bank. In the election of 1831 Crockett was defeated. Two years later he regained his congressional seat by a narrow margin. By 1834 he had become such an outspoken critic of Jackson that Whig party leaders used Crockett as a popular symbol in their anti-Jackson campaigns. It was during these activities that several purported biographies and autobiographies of Crockett appeared. Their purpose was to popularize him and to show that not all frontiersmen supported the Jackson administration. These literary efforts failed to sway most of the voters, and Crockett was defeated in 1835, ending his congressional career.
During his three terms in Washington, Crockett tried to represent the interests of his frontier district. In doing so, he became enmeshed in a dispute with the Tennessee Jackson forces. The continuing fight with this group not only prevented him from making any lasting legislative contributions but also ended his political career.
Death at the Alamo
In 1835 Crockett and four neighbors headed into Texas looking for new land. By January 1836 he had joined the Texas Volunteers, and within a month he reached San Antonio. In the first week of March he and the other defenders of the Alamo died during the siege and capture of that fort. Popular tradition places Crockett as one of the last defenders who died protecting the bedridden Col. William Travis during the final assault. The fact is, however, that Crockett was one of the first defenders to die, alone and unarmed.
Crockett's death at the Alamo engendered a notoriety and a lasting fame which his political activities would never have earned him. Through the newspaper accounts and other writings—fact and fiction—Crockett came to represent the typical westerner of that day. With the passage of time, tales and legends concerning his exploits grew. As a result, the popular image bears less relationship to the actual person than may be said about almost any other prominent figure.
Descriptions of Crockett are varied, but it is generally conceded that he was about 5 feet 8 inches tall, of medium weight, and with brown hair, blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. He was noted for a fine sense of humor, honesty, and ability as an entertaining public speaker. Those who knew him realized that he was a man of ability and character.
Further Reading on David Crockett
A lack of source material has limited the scholarly studies of Crockett but has not prevented numerous popular accounts. Beginning with Matthew St. Clair Clarke's anonymously published Life and Adventures of Col. David Crockett of West Tennessee (1833), such accounts have continued to appear. Of the 19th-century books only A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee (1834), written by Crockett himself, is at all reliable.
The best work on Crockett is James A. Shackford, David Crockett: The Man and the Legend (1956), which separates the myths surrounding him from the historical person. Crockett's position in folklore is examined in Franklin J. Meine, ed., Tall Tales of the Southwest: An Anthology of Southern and Southwestern Humor, 1830-1860 (1930), and Richard M. Dorson, ed., Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (1939). For an understanding of politics in the Old Southwest see Thomas P. Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study in Frontier Democracy (1932); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945); and Charles G. Sellers, James K. Polk, Jacksonian: 1795-1843 (1957).